scientific studies

UPLB’s hidden herbarium houses century-old botanical treasures

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UPLB’s hidden herbarium houses century-old botanical treasures

NATURE. A collection of preserved plants from the UPLB Botanical Herbarium.

UPLB Botanical Herbarium

UP Los Baños is racing against time to digitalize century-old plant specimens which are considered to be among the most priceless collections of Philippine plants

LAGUNA, Philippines – Unmarked by fanfare, a small room in the Institute of Biological Sciences of  the University of the Philippines-Los Baños appears much like any other storage room, lined with large green metal cabinets. 

But step inside room C329, and a world of botanical wonder unfolds. A total of 74,454 plants, some over a century old, represent a treasure trove of Philippine biodiversity, alongside collections from around the country and the globe.

ARCHIVES. Jun Jeff Latayan, museum technician, walks through development communication students to the insides of the metal cabinets used by UPLB to store and preserve the collections. Photo by Blessy Lyn Espenilla.

The UPLB Botanical Herbarium is part of a larger network of herbariums housed within the university. With collections spanning across the Philippines and beyond, it stands as the second-largest collection of herbarium samples in the country.  

From endemic species unique to the archipelago to international contributions, the herbarium’s collections serve as a valuable resource for botanical research and conservation efforts.

History seen through plants

Michelle San Pascual, a university researcher who is part of the herbarium’s lean staff, said that there could have been more than 75,000 preserved plants if not for World War II, when the then-Bureau of Forestry and parts of the UPLB campus were bombed. 

San Pascual said some 1,000 plants were salvaged from various areas of the campus and have been in the collection for over a century.

Among those that survived were specimens meticulously collected by Dr. Edwin Copeland, a pioneer in the study of ferns and one of the founders of the UP College of Agriculture; Dr. Mark Price, a renowned scientist in the field of pteridology or the study of ferns; Dr. Frank Gates, who contributed significantly to the understanding of Philippine flora; and many others.

PRESERVED. Samples of digitized content of the herbarium collection. Photos by UPLB Museum of Natural History.

“Many researchers, mostly from western countries, visit here to study our collection. There are challenges in preserving the plants, but despite that, we have the most priceless collection when it comes to Philippine plants,” San Pascual said.

Herbariums serve as crucial repositories of plant specimens, carefully  preserved for future scientific inquiry. 

San Pascual likened the herbarium to a library, with some collections dating back to the late 19th century providing a historical record of the Philippines’ diverse flora.

She said that the preserved plants serve as “reference materials” where scientists can “compare morphologically the structure and characteristics of one plant to another,” as well as check data provided in the description of the preserved specimens.

By comparing physical characteristics and analyzing DNA extracted from these samples, researchers can trace the lineage of various plant species and understand how they have adapted to different environments over time. 

San Pascual said that this knowledge is crucial for conservation efforts, allowing scientists to identify plants at risk of extinction and develop targeted strategies for their protection.

Preservation process

There are various types of preservation techniques employed in an herbarium. 

In the case of the Botanical Herbarium, the samples are dried-mounted, where they undergo a tedious process of drying or pressing, mounting, and labeling, ensuring their longevity for generations to come. 

UPLB’s hidden herbarium houses century-old botanical treasures

In other herbariums, there are plant collections that are wet-preserved, with the plants placed in liquid and stored in jars. This method allows observers to see the specimen in a three-dimensional manner, enabling scientists to see arrangements of flower parts or fruits. This, however, is rarely practiced in the UPLB botanical herbarium.

“There needs to be a separate room for a wet collection. The dry ones will absorb the moisture,” San Pascual said.

PRESERVATION. Some wet specimens stored in the UPLB botanical herbarium. Photo by Blessy Lynn Espenilla.
Limitations

More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic posed a new challenge. Lockdowns meant limited access for essential maintenance and pest control, raising concerns about rat infestations damaging the collections. These infestations threatened the integrity of irreplaceable specimens such as the gymnosperms collection.

“There have always been rats here. But when there are people, they tend to hide. But during the pandemic, they were able to nibble at our gymnosperms,” San Pascual said.

These incidents highlight the vulnerability of Room C329 and the precious biodiversity it houses.

Maintaining specific environmental conditions such as temperature, humidity, and pressure control is also crucial for long-term specimen preservation. The herbarium employs multiple hygrometers to monitor these conditions, and dedicated personnel are assigned to keep track of them meticulously. 

Unfortunately, San Pascual pointed out that the current facility falls short of ideal standards.

“Kung magiging strict tayo sa standard, hindi talaga tayo papasa. The  air-conditioning, ventilation, so 8 am to 4 pm lang talaga tayo ‘eh, dapat ‘yang mga ‘yan well-ventilated. Kung kaya, 24 hours. Plus ‘yung humidity, dapat hindi ‘yan lalampas ng 25% ‘yung relative humidity niya,” she noted.

(If we’re going to be strict with the standard, we won’t really pass. Plus the air-conditioning, ventilation, we only have it from 8 am to 4 pm but in reality, it should be well ventilated. If possible, 24 hours. And the humidity, the relative humidity or RH should not exceed 25%.)

RECORDS. An old logbook records data of plant specimens. Photo by Blessy Lynn Espenilla.

To combat pest infestations, the herbarium resorts to necessary, but potentially hazardous measures, like mothball usage and heavy use of insect repellant. Some chemicals in mothballs can cause temporary health problems for researchers and staff, such as headaches, nausea, eye and nose irritation, and coughing. 

The team is actively seeking  funding from agencies to secure resources for facility upgrades or researching greener alternatives for pest control. 

Digitalization

The botanical herbarium is also undertaking a digitization project to create digital records of the plant specimens, making them accessible for research and education while providing a backup in case of physical damage. 

This not only preserves the information contained within each specimen, but also mitigates the risk of loss from physical threats.

To digitize the preserved plants, a custom-built light box is used to photograph each dried-mounted specimen and maintain a detailed Excel sheet with data for each specimen, which will be eventually integrated into a digital library.

DIGITALIZATION. The makeshift digitalization setup by the botanical herbarium. Photo by Blessy Lyn Espenilla.

However, with less than 25% of the collection digitized, progress has been slow due to a lack of manpower. 

San Pascual said the herbarium cannot fully commit to the digitization project at the moment, given their current workload, which includes ongoing projects and fieldwork for gathering different plants from around the country. 

“Actually, puwede naman talaga siyang tuloy-tuloy. Ang problema, may student, may faculty, etc. so mahirap. Maganda sana kung maraming labor force, pero dapat may tututok talaga. Kagaya ko, mix-mix na ‘yung schedule,” San Pascual said.

(Actually, it could be continuous. However, the problem is that there are students and faculty, other tasks that make it hard. It would be better if there were more labor force and personnel that would focus on digitizing. For example, like me, my schedule is already mixed up.) – with reports from Albert Sabiniano and Blessy Lynn Espenilla/Rappler.com

Albert Sabiniano and Blessy Lynn Espenilla are BS Development Communication students at UP Los Baños. This article was written as part of the requirements of their DEVC 128 (Science Communication for Development) class, and was vetted by Rappler editors before publication.

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